Every time I set out to write a sermon I am struck by the great preacher’s dilemma – what about all the sermons I could have preached about this passage. They are like ghosts – hanging around.
Take this reading. I could have worked through the way Jesus managed to be late for a death – and spoken about his very relaxed attitude to life. I could have spoken about Mary and the way she directly confronts him. The sheer sense of truth and reality about this passage. I could also have preached on the wonderful two-worder, Jesus Wept! Which has become a minor profanity but says so much about the incarnate God and his total compassion for us. But no. These are for other days. Today I will speak about perhaps the greatest and most beautiful line in all the Gospels in all ancient literature.
I am the resurrection and the life….
Death is perhaps the most powerful brute fact of life. Oddly most of us manage to get on with our lives with a degree of optimism and don’t think about it too much.
But I know this. Death really hurts those of us who are left. There is no dodging it. I remember when my dad died. He had been going through Motor Neurone and for the last year was in a home. All that time you try to prepare yourself for the end. But you can’t really. What I remember was the day after he finally died. I was relieved his pain was over. I knew he had had a great life. But what was so powerful was the horrible crushing realisation that he was no longer here. I couldn’t go and speak with him. I couldn’t have a beer with him. We couldn’t tell each other stories.
I know when a high-profile person dies the world stops a little to remember them. But my dad was a carpet fitter from the East End of London – and I had an odd feeling that everyone should know he had died. As Auden had it.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
But thankfully friends that is not the end of the story – not by a long way.
The story is, of course that although we die, we go on and we live forever. But what does it matter if this promise from God isn’t true is just an ‘opiate’ as Marx had it. Why not just accept that we have one go at life then it’s over? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we must die.
A week or two ago I was speaking to one of my oldest friends. We worked together in the 90s and have kept in touch. He is a very strong atheist. Both his mum and dad died this year, both had dementia. He has been ill. It has been a struggle. He said to me. Steve I wish I had your faith…I have begun to feel that without it, well, what the point of it all?
And I think he is onto something. Because I do have faith, I am intelligent person and I believe that Jesus defeated death and one day, one day, we will all be together again.
The reading from John is beautiful with the full ring of truth. Mary is upset Jesus showed up late. She says if you’d got here on time our brother and your great friend wouldn’t have died. The celestial ambulance got stuck in traffic. Jesus weeps. Why? He knows the ending. He knows intellectually that death is a gateway. But he weeps because he sees the devastation of grief upon his friends. He is not some aesthetic being. Some philosophical concept.
He then rolls away the stone over the tomb. There is a metaphor. The tombs that our lives can become. Inside the odour is appalling. The corruption of death. Jesus speaks tenderly with God the Father and then he says it.
Lazarus, come out!
It is as natural as that. Come back my friend.
C S Lewis was rather funny on this. Poor Lazarus, he wrote, had his dying to do all over again.
But no, that’s for another sermon, another time.
Death cannot win. Because Jesus, so convincingly drawn here, says so and goes on to show so. In the end all will be well. And that has brought about a revolution in my own thinking and the way I live life.
What if, this life is just the start. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I believe that to be true. Just the first page of the great book of life, with each subsequent chapter more beautiful than the last.
Jesus says I am the resurrection….and the life. Life is certainly to be lived. But in the light of the resurrection. It is not about enduring it and hanging on for heaven.
Of course, none of this takes away from the agony of grief and loss. We are only human of course, and we miss our friends and loved ones. Imagine Lazarus going to see his friends again. The shock they must have felt. The relief perhaps.
My final lost sermon? This is Jesus last miracle – and his most theatrical. It is like a scene from the Michael Jackson video of Thriller. Lazarus stumbles from the grave. There are tattered strips of linen and a cloth around his face. He must have been a terrifying sight and not perhaps the best advert for resurrection.
But even this very visible miracle didn’t really work in convincing people – so Jesus switched tactics. He was to become the miracle – he was to show that death cannot win, love wins and it always has.